As we start to stuff ourselves and our bags into the back of the police cruiser, I hear the murmurs punctuated by waiguoren and jingcha ripple through the crowd strolling along Fengjie’s raucous nighttime sidewalk.
“Look – foreigners with the police.” “Americans?” “What did they do?”
To hide my growing embarrassment, I stare at the officers gesturing us into the tiny, 80s-era Santana to avoid making eye contact with the revelers who have stopped to speculate about what’s going on. Foreigners seem to be a rare enough sight in the streets of this river waypoint nestled just above the Yangtze’s famed three gorges; foreigners and police together are something of a showstopper.
But while the crowd wonders what we’ve done, I just wonder how much the whole ordeal is going to cost.
After spending three days in the massive Yangtze port city of Chongqing, Jordyn and I started Monday to make our way down the river, where we’ll end up at the infamous Three Gorges Dam – the world’s largest construction project, recently completed a few years ago – before heading to Wuhan and then back to Beijing. We’d mulled taking a domestic cruise ship on a three or four day tourist trip from Chongqing to Yichang, just above the dam, but decided to try to save some money and have an adventure instead, taking the journey in a handful of bus and ferry journey’s from river town to river town.
The first leg of our river trip is by bus. Once you leave the station, buses are surprisingly one of the more pleasant ways to travel in China. They’ve got clean and comfortable seats and are relatively cheap and fast, especially given the spider web of expressways that’s been woven out all across the country in recent years to snare even the smallest of cities.
Buses are also a good way to get a taste of local life. On one side trip out Chongqing earlier this week, a small verbal scuffle broke when the bus driver demanded that one old woman do something about her duck. The duck, stuffed in a bag with its head and neck protruding through a hole, had started to quack while the bus sat in a traffic jam. They agreed that she could stow the duck with the luggage under the bus.
This week being the middle of Spring Festival, the bus stations have been full of ducks, chickens, and above all, people. Buses – or trains or car or boat, for that matter – are not a good way to travel during Spring Festival. This is a lesson that Jordyn and I have learned and learned and learned again every time we’ve arrived at a transportation hub to find the ticket hall stuffed like dumpling and every time we’ve waited and jostled and shoved our way to the front of the undefinable “lines” hoping to snag a ticket out before the day is up.
This morning we were lucky, getting a ticket just an hour and a half later than we’d hoped for the five hour journey from Chongqing to Fengjie.
Another advantage of bus travel is the scenery. The expressway between Chongqing and Fengjie rolls through the Sichuan mountains alongside mountain gorges and past stands of pine. In the distance, green peaks rise to dwarf the factory towns still under construction in the flatlands below. Unlike most of the other mountains we’ve seen in China, these remind me of home. Only the family grave plots, trimmed in red for the holidays, that dot the greenery on the inclines and the ubiquitous flat-fronted brick and concrete Chinese farm homes distinguish these mountains from America’s.
We arrive at a bus station on the bank of the river in Fengjie at about 6:30 and promptly start to search for the ferry terminal. Our plan was to buy an early morning speedboat ticket to Badong at the true mouth of the Gorges where we’d do a side boat trip up a smaller tributary. However, we don’t know where the terminal is, don’t have a map, and can’t make much sense of the iPhone map app’s directions. We find something on the app that looks like it might be a transportation hub and start walking that way. Of course, it’s the wrong way. After about 20 minutes of walking, something doesn’t seem right. There’s no boats anywhere, nor are there any signs for boat tickets.
We stop on the sidewalk and try stare at the map, trying to decide what to do. Presently a man stops and asks us where we’re trying to go. We tell him we want to buy ferry tickets, and he points up the road. He says the terminal is near the bus station. He saw us get off the bus and walk down the road and he thought we might need some help. Then a second man appears. He says something in the local dialect that I can’t understand, but I think the gist is something about how we should follow him and then we can buy the tickets. He starts walking, we follow, and the first man follows us, too, chatting with Jordyn.
I start to get a little nervous when we turn up a dark alleyway, but I can see a couple of signs ahead with the characters for “travel” and “hotel” on them and figure we’re being led to a hotel. We climb a half dozen flights of grimy steps and arrive at an apartment that’s been converted into a small hotel. Sixty yuan (10 dollars) for a bed, but we still haven’t figured out how to buy our boat tickets and I want to get that taken care of first so I tell the hotel keepers I want to go to the ferry ticket office. We go back and forth – “I’ll take you there tomorrow”, “I want to go now”, “Do you want the room; it’s very cheap,” “I want to go to the ferry ticket office”, “I’ll take you there, but how about the room”, and so on – until we finally walk out.
The first man is still following us, and I’m still not sure why. He follows us back down the stairs. I expect him to try to take us to another hotel or restaurant or some such hustle, but instead he takes us across the street to a gas station, gabs with a minibus driver and tells us to get on the bus.
“We’ll go the boat ticket office,” he says. “Get on.” He pays the 5 yuan total for the three of us. When I try to argue he chirps a high-pitched laugh and says, “Come on, it’s so little money!”
The ferry office is dark when we arrive, all the windows empty. We search around trying to make sense of the signs and prices and times. It seems to me that the ferry for Badong leaves every morning, but our new friend makes a couple of phone calls to double check. The news is grim: No boats to Badong he says.
Another man, this one wearing a checkered scarf and a baseball hat, hustles in. He and our friend – Mr. Qu, we later learn – practically shout at each other. The local accent is hard enough for me to follow as is, and these fellows speak fast so I’ve got no idea what’s going on. They agree on something, tell me, and I still don’t know. I try to clarify. I still can’t understand. I try again. I still can’t understand. Finally, I think I piece it together: A bus leaves from somewhere in town sometime before 8 a.m. to go to Wushan, just down the river. From there we can catch a ferry to Badong, if we’re on it before 9:30. The scarf-hat man is heading that way, too. At least that’s what I think I understand as scarf-hat man runs off.
Once back outside, Mr. Qu tells us not to worry, scarf-hat man’s information is good. Then, Mr. Qu makes the catholic cross sign across his chest.
“He’s a good Christian,” he says and makes the sign of the cross again and chirps his laugh and then folds his hands like he’s praying. “A good Christian, you know.”
By now Mr. Qu has been helping us for nearly an hour but he tells us he’ll take us to see the bus station, then help us find a hotel. He makes a couple of calls to check on hotels and we catch a bus to another bus station just down the road. Here’s where we can buy tickets tomorrow morning, he says, then we duck into a noodle shop.
The noodle shop specializes in mala xiao mian – numb spicy small noodles. We order a few bowls, plus some tea eggs, and slurp them up – everyone is surprised that I eat them with real spice – while answering a barrage of questions from locals who poke their heads in. Where are we from? What do we do? Oh you study at Qinghua? How much does it cost? Everyone is happy to hear that Xi DaDa is helping foreigners study in China, too.
We snap a couple of pictures with Mr. Qu, then the bad news comes: His friend at the police station says we can’t stay in a small hotel. It’s illegal, he says, so we’ve got to find a hotel that accepts foreigners. No problem, Mr. Qu, says, and we flag down a cab to head up the hill.
Fengjie ladders up the hills, crumbling residential complexes giving way to neon-lit shopping streets. Below, the Yangtze spreads outs, reflecting the twilight-shrouded mountains on both sides. Barges rumble away toward their eventual berth in Shanghai. Spring Festival activities are in full tilt, too. Fireworks dot the night, and the hillls are lit as if by fireflies as lanterns lift on the breeze into the mountain mists. The crowds walk the plazas, picking up street snacks and shooting off firecrackers. We step out onto the main strip and hustle after Mr. Qu to two, then three then four different hotels. All of them are full but one, and that one is charging more than 100 U.S. dollars per night.
No problem, no problem, Mr. Qu says. He’s got an idea.
As we walk, Mr. Qu tells us how he used to work making bullets for the army. He tells us about Fengjie’s famous liquor. How his son goes to school in Chengdu and how he likes it better there; the climate is nicer, less humid. He tells us he’s been to Beijing twice, the last time 10 years ago and there were too many people, but that he has a French friend whom he also helped out in Fengjie and whom also lives in the Haidian District in Beijing.
In between conversation bits, he tells us not to worry about the hotel. He’s got an idea.
Finally we round a crowded street corner and he announces: “We’ve arrived!”
Indeed we have. At the local police station. He marches through the doors where five handsome, blue-and-fur clad officers wait in behind the desk killing time through a bored evening.
Mr. Qu starts gesticulating wildly. I have a hard time following the conversation, but as best I can keep up, he tells them that we’ve been to all the hotels and none of them have a single room! What can we do? How about the small hotels?
“She goes to Tsinghua!” he adds. “Tsinghua!”
No, no, no, a stern looking officer replies. The foreigners must register. No small hotels.
“We can help,” the officer says.
All five officers scurry to surround the computer. They chatter as the officer behind the keyboard pulls up the hotel registration list. Fingers jab at the spreadsheet; heads shake in the air. Every few minutes a exclamation of “ah” accompanies a particularly emphatic finger jab, then one of the officers picks up the phone. After a short conversation, the phone clicks back down and heads shake some more. Arguments break out, then the search begins anew.
This goes on for ten or fifteen minutes, all five officers working almost feverishly while Mr. Qu looks on with a wry look, I-told-you-so look on his face. We sit on the metal benches backpacks still strapped up.
By now, even the officers look about ready to give up. Two of them drift away, but the computer guy keeps plugging away. He makes another phone call, and his voice starts to rise in excitement. He hangs up the phone and exchanges a flurry of words with his compatriots and with Mr. Qu. Two of the officers – one of them the stern officer — walk out from behind the desk.
“Come with us,” the stern man says. “We’ll deliver you to the hotel.”
As we walk out of the station, the murmurs start and they only get louder as we jam ourselves into the Santana. It’s a relief when Mr. Qu climbs into the back with us and shouts the door.
The police flip on the lights and we head off up the hill and I start biting my nails. Just how much is this room going to cost?
We arrive a couple minutes later, but the police escort doesn’t end there, nor do the excited murmurs about foreigners and police. “Hello Americans!” children shout in the building lobby. They ignore the police.
The Chinese boys in blue walk us to the elevator and the children follow. They step into with us and shut the door in the children’s’ faces. We arrive at a hotel desk on the 19th floor. The reception ladies know exactly who we are.
Two hundred yuan, one night, the desk lady says. I breathe a sigh of relief.
Mr. Qu asks if the price is alright, then glances at the police, lifts his hands, smiles and adds, “It’s alright. There’s no other solution!” I nod vigorously and hand over the cash.
One officer eyes the desk, while the other eyes a crowd of drunk Chinese guests who stumble out of the elevator. She hands back our passports and a room key. The police walk us down the hallway, and when we open the door to our room, everyone crowds in behind us to give the room an appraising look. In Fengjie, “room service” has a unique meaning.
Despite the charred and gunk-splotched carpet, satisfied enough, we nod. Satisfied, Mr. Qu nods. Satisfied, the police nod. Then, they each flash a smile and bid us goodnight. Despite our protestations, Mr. Qu says he’ll meet us in the lobby in the morning to take us to the bus station.
As the elevator arrives, the stern officer turns one last time and fixes us with an appraising eye.
“Stay safe,” he says, and turns on his heel.
Outside our window, Spring Festival lanterns rise into the night.